The problem with converting books into movies (or into stage shows or comics or, less frequently, games) is that the medium has certain elements that cannot be recreated. The level of depth and flow of language can only ever be from a certain perspective when flipped into the flesh of a different storytelling vehicle. Ask any Harry Potter fan for their favourite entry in the series and they’ll soon light their eyes with elements of the book that the film didn’t capture. The wonderful thing about books is that often they tell a story in a way that could not be expressed as fully in any other medium. These are the ones that capture us and leave us breathless at the end, mourning for the closure of the final page.
What’s so special about Gravity, then, is that it is a film equivalent. This story, these characters, this situation – none could be told with the same level of effectiveness in any other form (books included). Not only an easy contender for film of the year, Gravity is one of the finest pieces of filmmaking you’ll ever see, and God help you, see it on the big screen. It is the true definition of a “cinema movie”, the white-eyed airless immersion a vital tool in director Alfonso Cuarón’s approach.
The story is a basic structure, simple and straightforward in order let the characters unfold within it. A standard mission to upgrade Hubble sees Sandra Bullock’s quiet and nervous doctor interacting with George Clooney’s soon-to-retire pilot (and the NASA staff back on the ground) as they manipulate the huge telescope into cooperation. Even with the light tone and air of controlled procedure, it’s a disorienting experience to find yourself drifting among them, our world below filling our view. The air around you suddenly feels like a finite resource. A simple twist suddenly introduces a field of debris screaming around the planet at precisely their altitude, and this sets the pace for the entire movie. What then follows is a basic tale told with complex characters, a message of human ingenuity and undying resilience wrapped around their attempts to just get home.
Both the main actors are fantastic. Initially it appears that Clooney’s old hand would be little more than a supporting structure for the focus on Bullock, but his role actually develops into a vital part of the puzzle. Clooney also once again demonstrates his acting aptitude, flipping between flippancy and urgency with equal aplomb, his constant calm tone a necessity to balance out Bullock’s desperation. However, the eye of the story is firmly focused on Bullock for the majority of the film’s ninety minutes, and this places a huge amount of pressure on her shoulders. Much like similar single-character-led movies like Phone Booth or Buried, the choice of main actor to carry the story could be the difference between success and failure, so it’s a relief to find that not only is she able to carry Gravity but her delicate nature actually proves to be a major asset as her character evolves. Despite a few hiccups in the script in the final third, her portrayal of a woman trying to survive not only the terrors of space but also those of deep emotional sadness is deep, measured and authentic.
These performances can be placed firmly at the feet of Alfonso Cuarón. His last film, Children Of Men, was a masterpiece in both visual filming technique and emotional resonance from the actors, and Gravity proves that this was no fluke. However, Cuarón has also proved to be a genius director who specialises in impossible single-shot set pieces, and this is used to its full effect. The entire movie feels like the realisation of a precise vision (reportedly one for which he had to fight) and the determination to keep us in space, adrift with the protagonists, is as exhausting as it is exhilarating. The special effects (which were given eleven extra months to improve after the film was pushed back from November 2012) are seamless, never becoming an unreal distraction from the human story. In fact, the effects are so breathtaking that it makes the inevitable “Making Of” feature something to be eagerly anticipated. Sound design, too, is exceptional; jumping quickly from audio hurricane to orbital silence, from heaving pulses to screaming strings, it becomes a central part of the film’s immersion and success.
Gravity, though, never becomes purely about the spectacle; this is a story about a woman turning from weakness to strength, rising to find the part of herself that we would all like to think exists inside every one of us – the absolute refusal to give up. There are definite echoes here of past examples – Terminator’s Sarah Connor, Alien‘s Ellen Ripley, The Descent‘s Sarah, the rebooted vision of Lara Croft from this year’s excellent Tomb Raider – all regular women who defy certain destruction with verve and spirit. Bullock’s portrayal of Ryan Stone can safely be added to this list. Her place of weakness comes from a devastating revelation that is so blunt in its simplicity, so brutal in its implications, that we immediately empathise with much of her sometimes defeatist reasoning. The result of this is that, when she (with some certain motivation) turns and finds her strength and confidence buried in the acceptance of loss, we are swept up in her struggle and become emotionally connected to her positive push for survival. It’s a breathless and heart-pounding chase, right up to the final moments.
Then the film ends as abruptly as it started and you realise you haven’t breathed deeply in about twenty minutes. With the final image blazing in your mind, the last ninety minutes trailing close behind, the music swells and the credits roll and you realise just how beautiful cinema can be, and you’ll look around to see a sea of open mouths, wide eyes and white knuckles. Gravity is certainly going to be a welcome part of anyone’s Blu-Ray collection, but by that time the best moment will be gone. For a limited moment you have the opportunity to watch something that proves how vital this artistic form really is, and you’ll get to share that revelation with a room full of people. Don’t pass up that extraordinary opportunity. And remember to breathe.